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Entertainment & Utopia August 19, 2007

Posted by generoscinematograficos in musical.

**Notes on Richard Dyer’s text “Entertainment and Utopia” taken from Steve Cohan’s “Hollywood Musicals; The Film Reader

As an opening to his text on musicals “Entertainment and Utopia” Dyer states that “Musicals were predominantly conceived, by producers and audiences alike, as “pure entertainment”. By “entertainment” we understand that is something:

– Produced for profit
– Performed before an audience
– Performed by a crowd whose role is to provide pleasure
– Therefore: entertainment = pleasure
– Therefore: entertainment (should) = money

Hollywood musicals are “one of a whole string of forms – that are usually summed by the term ‘Show Biz’.

And ‘Show Biz’-ness is strictly a business produced by two major forces:

1. those who invest the money
2. those who produce the content

Those who produce the content are those qualified to entertain. As as Dyer explains: “Because entertainment is largely produced by professional entertainers, it is also largely defined by them”.

However, the money comes from big investors and big investors are usually white, male, patriarchal figures. Therefore the relationship between entertainment and capitalism is a complex one. Not only because of the complications between spectacle and politics but also because entertainment does not respond to the demands of the people but it shapes those demands. “it does not simply give the people what they want (since it actually defines those wants)”.

Definitions of entertainment also imply that audiences are drawn to them because they want to have a good time. This means they most likely want to “escape” their realities and enter a world of “jolly and wish fulfillment” In (Dorothy’s) Judy Garland’s own words, audiences are in search of a place “over the rainbow” where “the dreams that you dare to dream – Really do come true”.

However, this does not mean that entertainment creates “models of utopian worlds”. Rather it focuses in what Utopia “would feel like rather than how it would be organized”.

Let’s explore this definition a bit further;

Define Utopia:

An utopic world is one where there is:
1. No suffering
2. No poverty
3. No racial, sexual, or class struggles
4. We all live happy
5. In peace with nature
6. No ecological damage
7. ….etc..

Take The Wizard of Oz for example;

Is Kansas an utopic place?

– Black and white
– No fun
– No one to play with Dorothy
– Working in an isolated farm
– No one around
– Exposed to horrible acts of nature
– Reigned by the richest women, sort of a feudal society
– No joy in the characters

One is left to wonder why Dorothy would want to leave Oz and return to a colorless life in Kansas. Yet the sense of “home” is raised as a more important factor than the scarcity that surrounds her.

While the world that The Wizard of Oz revolves in is far from utopic, the general feeling the film conveys is one of happiness, of joy – Dorothy dreams of a better place but settles for home because she realizes it is where her heart is.

Salman Rushdie wrote a very beautiful text on the film and he says that Dorothy’s dilemma is one that all of those who chose to migrate from their home country have to face. Home is where the heart is but one always dreams of leaving home for that place where dreams come true…. yet Dorothy chooses to return, giving more value to home than to dreaming. The American Dream essentially feeds from this unquestioning sense that USA can be both home + and a place where dreams come true. Thinking along these lines we could say that films like The Wizard of Oz play a huge role in this construction.

Contrary in Moulin Rouge, a contemporary version of the musical, one is bewitched by the beauty of the images and captured by the pop songs. One feels like singing along. One feels happy watching the movie not only because it is a very smart and gripping movie, but because it is colorful, one knows the lyrics, it is witty and it hides the hardship in comedy and music.

Yet, a world where a woman has to sell her body to survive is far from utopic, but falling in love with a poet and being happy at what she does generates a utopic feeling, and this is precisely Dyer’s point: entertainment does not present “models of utopian worlds” but rather how utopia feels like.

Dyer also says that these modes of entertainment change as entertainers (producers of entertainment) and audiences change, since they correspond to different modes of perception and they respond to the times’s particular “culturally and historically determined sensibilities”.

According to Dyer, one way to understand these sensibilities is to explore in the way in which entertainment responds to the inadequacies of society – they way in which it escapes it.

This more or less explains why entertainment is such a huge hit: and why it works = as it responds to “real needs created by society” However the relationship is a complex one because “while entertainment is responding to needs that ARE real, at the same time is defining and delimiting what constitute the legitimate needs of people in society” (pg 23).

But entertainment being entertainment it does not really or adequately address important needs of our society. It does not address the struggles in society in a way that one feels that the struggles are valid, for such struggles take place in is a world that will sacrifice their dreams and settle for Home. “Class, race, sexual preferences are denied validity as problems by the dominant bourgeois, white, male, patriarchal) ideology of society” and are therefore never addressed by entertainment. (pg 23)

Take the Lion in The Wizard of Oz. He is presented as gay because he lacks courage. Back in Kansas he was shown as easily scared but in his working clothes he was not gay looking. Yet dressed as a lion, his gay-ness is made obvious by his long blond curls and the red ribbon he wears in his hair. The subject of his manliness is devalued by his lack of “courage” and his gayness is a matter of comedy.

Entertainment’s “light” nature is precisely what makes it such a difficult place where such issues can be addressed. This is why Lars Von Trier’sDancer in the Dark” is such a work of genius. It is a criticism to the “American Dream” it’s justice system, using the studios biggest entertainment form: the musical. Not only a musical but opposing the pastoral dream created in “The Sound of Music” the movie from which it gets its melodies.

Dancer in the Dark:
1. questions the American dream in the sense that immigrants work like slaves in factories
2. they have no access to social care, they are abandoned by the system
3. they are feed this nonsense about this great country through their own cultural production / movies
4. the music that Selma (Bjork) chooses to sing comes as a complete opposite to what is stands – The Sound of Music – being the pastoral dream and her reality in the factory and her life is far from one
5. the feeling in far from being one of utopia
6. the world the characters live in is dystopic
7. she is put on trial for killing a man who begs to be killed because he has no money to buy “things” for his wife.
8. Ends in sadness

What Von Trier essentially does is mock America by that which America is so proud of, turning things around and making the musical precisely a place where socio-politics can be played.

Musicals mostly respond to cultural codes that are pre-ordered, it does not question them. And as such they are understood to be passive more that questioning, yet there are things that can be studied within the musical production that are very interesting and this is precisely what Dyer opens up in his text.



1. Joan - August 19, 2007

Margarita, I’m sorry I don’t know where did you post the texts to read n’ make the sinopsis, or all we have to do to the next class is to read this article and research about Von Trier?

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